Freire rightly observed that this model of teaching was actually oppressive. “Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as
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Freire rightly observed that this model of teaching was actually oppressive. “Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry.” Instead, Freire advocated the free exchange of ideas in a dialogical education emphasizing persuasion, not compulsion. In this he echoed Plato, in whose dialogues even the most foundational ideas — justice, courage, piety — are subjected to question and contestation. Dogmatism never ends well for Plato’s interlocutors.
Most modern universities tend to agree with Freire (and Plato) about the importance of free inquiry and “critical thinking.” In one arena, however, they often do not. As nearly every professor knows, when it comes to campus “trainings,” there is often no dialogue and no room for dispute.
Universities now “offer” — or require — training opportunities on topics such as implicit bias, diversity, equity and inclusion, racial awareness, and conflict resolution, as well as a wide array of Title IX-related workshops. Various campus administrative offices present additional training sessions on workplace bullying, active shooters, sexual harassment, and boundary invasions.
The email invitations we have received from campus offices present these as “exciting opportunities for professional development” — opportunities that are usually “mandatory.” Consequences will follow for those who do not “successfully complete” the trainings. Trainers employ compulsion and pressure to enforce uniformity. Although the academy has survived for a long time without such trainings, these sessions are now deemed essential.
In their defense, almost all universities operate under the pressure of government regulators and accreditation agencies. Some training requirements — Title IX, for example — are required for recipients of federal funds. And it makes sense for universities to put in place pre-emptive measures to prevent foreseeable lawsuits.
Moreover, faculty members are expected to possess certain skills for which training is quite legitimate. Faculty members must be competent with computer technology, including the course systems the college uses. They are expected to know how to navigate the campus, to advise students according to the school’s curriculum, and to use the institution’s resources efficiently and responsibly. All such activities require training, properly understood, and we have no objections.
But in recent years the scope of training has expanded significantly. Trainings now aim at ends that are not only tendentious but even contrary to one of the chief ends of the university itself, which is the pursuit of truth. The problem is that “training” tends to assume that the truth is already known. It claims expert knowledge of truths about such complex and abstract things as “justice” and “race” and “gender.” But when these “truths” are, in fact, a matter of reasonable disagreement and current political contestation, the trainings become indoctrinations.
Properly understood, training refers to teaching a particular set of skills when the end is not in question. But at a university, the “ends” of human life are always in question, always under investigation. That is what a university essentially is. In the words of Hannah Arendt, academic life requires asking the “unanswerable questions.”
True, many people also understand the university as a place where social justice should be learned and practiced, assuming that we agree on what social justice is and what it requires. But a simple thought experiment highlights the problem with this view. Can we imagine other institutions whose intrinsic purposes are to promote social justice? Of course we can. Hundreds or even thousands of such institutions exist: think tanks, businesses, social clubs, Facebook groups, and nonprofits of all sorts.
Can we imagine, by contrast, other institutions where the free exchange of ideas is valued and promoted as an end in itself? Certainly many other institutions — journals, publishing houses, public-interest groups, advocacy groups, and foundations — engage in the “ideas business.” But these operate on the basis of largely predetermined agendas and shared values. They do not tend to be interested in freewheeling conversation or debate about first principles. A foundation that exists to promote religious liberty, for example, will likely not be enthusiastic about questioning the legitimacy or importance of religious liberty itself.
Only a university invites the contestation of ideas in a ceaseless effort to get at the truth. Free inquiry is, therefore, intrinsic to universities — extrinsic to other organizations. Social-justice efforts can and do take place at universities, of course, but universities could exist without them and still retain their fundamental character. Without the free contestation of ideas, universities would lose their central animating purpose, their raison d'être.
Coercive trainings derail this enterprise. For those who design social-justice trainings, inquiry is decidedly inconvenient, and the enterprise is a deliberate attempt to bypass the conflict of interpretations and the friction of disagreement. Training stipulates the truth of its goal, and thus operates outside the proper authority and function of academic life itself. Educators take nothing to be self evident; trainers take everything to be so.
Traditionally, authority in the academy has been hierarchical and related to assigned functions, the most important of which is faculty teaching. Faculty members report directly to department chairs, who report to deans, who report to the provost, who reports to the president. The hierarchy defines functions and relations of status and is bound together by academic credentialing. Academics are rightfully suspicious of reporting to and being evaluated by nonacademics, or improperly credentialed ones, since the ability to evaluate depends on a demonstrated excellence in what one is evaluating. Put differently, the authority of academic administrators is only solid to the extent that they themselves are credible practitioners of the scholarly life.
Yet now the nonacademic parts of the institutional structure (those existing alongside and, properly speaking, subordinate to, academic programs) exercise significant authority. People with limited academic qualifications are “training” faculty members to develop skills tangential to the academic enterprise, and to pursue ends about which faculty members have no say. Still, even though the trainers may not have legitimate authority, they do indeed have power. This is evident in the grudging but all-too-often silent compliance of faculty members who are too scared to say anything.
In other cases, faculty members are largely in agreement about the ends pursued, so the question of legitimacy matters little to them. But here is a thought experiment: suggest training on ends not commensurate with the views of most faculty members, and watch how quickly they appeal to academic freedom. We both teach at religious institutions. What if our colleges mandated the sorts of training in matters of faith that are being mandated for race, class, and gender? We would, no doubt, face open revolt. Imagine a training seminar whose goal was to compel faculty members to purge themselves of their Enlightenment-derived prejudices against the claims of faith. Like current diversity trainings, such trainings would go well beyond explaining that one must not discriminate on the basis of religion. They would ask that you look within yourself and change your deeply held beliefs, or “prejudices.” If the trainees protested that these were not in fact their prejudices, or that they disagreed with the aim of the training in general, then (according to the practice of current trainings) they would be informed that they were unaware of their biases and in need of more intensive training.
This deep problem with “training” is real, and it is not adequately addressed (as our administrators often try to address it) by doubling down on the profound importance of training. The trainers themselves earnestly believe that their “passion for justice” locates them at the center of the academic enterprise. But this is an untested and debatable assumption resting in a particular, tendentious understanding of what a university is for.
Treating skepticism about training as a form of illicit rebellion erodes the legitimacy of the academic enterprise. It also distorts the nature of an academic community by driving certain kinds of conduct underground. Given that many faculty members know the training sessions do not satisfy the conditions of social science or academic integrity, they often merely go through the motions. This pro forma activity wastes countless hours and millions of dollars. And when the training involves “tests,” the tests usually have only one right answer. The “correct” button must be clicked before one can “successfully complete” the training.
In real learning, nobody is being dragged or pulled against their will, as Paolo Freire so aptly perceived. And nobody is just going through the motions, either. Real education requires free participation in the life of the mind, which alone serves as the condition for human flourishing.